Finding facilities

With a charter comes the search for school space. Here’s how one Memphis operator is doing it.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Freedom Preparatory Academy's high school is housed in the former Lakeview Elementary School owned by Shelby County Schools.

When Roblin Boxill made the career jump from lawyer to charter school founder seven years ago, she had little knowledge of buildings and maintenance.

Now she can look at ceiling tile and detect asbestos. She can accurately estimate square footage in a potential classroom. And she knows that if a building doesn’t have a fire sprinkler system, it’s not worth her time.

As CEO of Freedom Preparatory Academy, Boxill is like many Memphis charter leaders who deal with the daily challenges of finding facilities and operating new schools in typically aging buildings.

Of the 45 charters authorized by Shelby County Schools, eight are housed in school buildings that have been closed by the district; six lease space and two bought the buildings. The remaining charter schools are housed in commercial buildings.

Next year, thanks to last week’s school board vote, the local district’s charter sector will grow by seven more schools, whose operators must secure their own facilities.

Freedom Prep operates one Memphis charter under the state-run Achievement School District and three under Shelby County Schools, including an elementary school that opened this month in South Memphis.

Finding potential school buildings that are also affordable has been one of Freedom Prep’s biggest challenges as an operator.

When a charter opens in a building owned by Shelby County Schools, the charter pays for rent and regular maintenance. If authorized by the state-run Achievement School District, the charter operator is responsible for utilities and repair, but not rent.

Freedom Prep has been paying $178,060 annually to Shelby County Schools, plus utilities and maintenance, to house its high school at the former Lakeview Elementary School. But it’s now seeking to buy the building and its 15 acres outright for $735,000. The proposed purchase is to be considered Tuesday night by Shelby County’s school board.

The operator’s new elementary school launched inside of the Mt. Pisgah Family Ministry Complex in South Memphis, which also houses Freedom Prep’s offices. For that space, Freedom Prep pays $81,000 per year, plus utilities.

Roblin Boxill, CEO and founder of Freedom Preparatory.
PHOTO: Freedom Preparatory Academy
Roblin Boxill, CEO and founder of Freedom Preparatory.

The school now has about 120 kindergarteners and first-graders, and Boxill expects the budding elementary school to run out of room by next school year, necessitating a move. But she’s not sure where. Buildings that are well suited for a school often come at a high rental price that “basically takes it out of the classroom,” she said.

“(Real estate) is not the business that we’re in,” she said. “Starting a charter school is like starting a startup business, and always from scratch.”

Since charters in commercial spaces are not eligible for money from bonds, other funding for facility improvement comes from conventional loans, investment funds and charter support organizations.

Facilities are just one of the challenges being examined by Shelby County Schools’ new 27-member charter compact committee, of which Boxill is a member. The panel was created earlier this year to look at issues that come up between the district and its growing charter sector. But Boxill said the higher priority for the committee at this point is clarifying academic performance standards following the school board’s decision last spring to revoke four charters over performance issues.

negotiations

The Denver district has offered to raise teacher pay. Will it be enough to avert a strike?

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
A Denver teacher rallies support for increased teacher pay in front of the school district headquarters in September 2018.

Most Denver teachers would get raises under a new salary structure proposed by the school district Wednesday night. The proposal would boost the salary for first-year teachers by nearly 8 percent to $45,000 annually.

The current contract between the district and the teachers union expires Jan. 18, and the union has threatened to strike if an agreement is not reached.

While union leaders said the district’s proposal is “moving in the right direction,” they said it still falls short. For one, they said it wouldn’t give teachers enough of a salary boost for furthering their own education by taking classes toward earning advanced degrees.

“You’re listening,” Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the union bargaining team, told district negotiators. “I will say that. We still need you to listen further.”

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have been negotiating for the past year against a backdrop of widespread protests over teacher pay. The two sides are not negotiating the main teacher contract. Rather, they are negotiating the contract that governs the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp.

Negotiations have been heated, in part because of a state law that requires the district and the union to bargain in public where teachers can watch. Wednesday’s session was no exception. At the end, Gould pointed to a red and white button he had pinned to his union T-shirt.

“This button says, ‘Ask me why I am ready to strike,’” Gould said, as a chorus of teachers “mmmhmmm”-ed in the audience. “I’m ready to strike because I’m sick and tired of teacher salaries paying for other things. And you need to prioritize teachers.”

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable. It pays teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position.

The sole finalist for the district’s open superintendent job, Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, has said repeatedly the district should invest more in teachers’ base pay.

District officials said their proposal would simplify the system. It would also increase by $11 million the amount of money Denver Public Schools spends out of its $1 billion budget on teacher pay. The $11 million would come from a combination of increased state funding and cuts to the central office, said Debbie Hearty, head of human resources for the district.

However, the proposal does not give the teachers union what it really wants: the opportunity for veteran teachers to earn $100,000. The union has proposed its own salary schedule that would pay a teacher with 20 years of positive evaluations and a doctorate a base salary of $100,000.

Under the district’s proposal, a teacher with a doctorate and 20 years of positive evaluations would earn a base salary of $85,750.

The union’s proposal would cost a lot more than $11 million, maybe even three times as much. But union leaders said the district could come up with the money if it prioritized paying teachers over other things, such as calculating school ratings they think are flawed.

The district’s proposal gets close to a $100,000 salary but not all the way. The highest it goes is a base salary of $90,750. That would be for a teacher with 30 years of positive evaluations and a doctorate or a combination of advanced degrees, certifications, and longevity.

The district is proposing that teachers who have worked for the district 15 years be bumped up on the salary schedule as a way to honor retention — a proposal Hearty called “bold.”

The two sides do agree on where the salary schedule should start: $45,000 for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Currently, first-year teachers earn a base salary of $41,689.

A $45,000 starting salary would be higher than in the surrounding metro districts, including Jeffco, Aurora, and Cherry Creek, but still lower than the well compensated Boulder Valley School District, according to a chart prepared by Denver Public Schools.

The district and the union also disagree on the size of the bonuses and incentives. The union favors larger base salaries and smaller incentives, with some as small as $1,000. The district has proposed offering an extra $2,500 to teachers who work in hard-to-fill positions, high-poverty schools, or other schools deemed “highest priority” by criteria not yet set.

About 75 percent of the district’s roughly 5,000 teachers would earn at least one of the $2,500 incentives, and about 25 percent would earn two, according to the district’s calculations.

The district can’t get rid of the incentives altogether because of the way they’re funded. In 2005, Denver voters passed a tax increase to fund ProComp. The ballot language was specific about how the tax revenue would be used, including to pay teachers for things like working in hard-to-fill positions, increasing their teaching skills, and earning positive evaluations.

Giving up the incentives would also mean giving up the tax money, which district officials project will be $33 million next year.

The district and the union are next scheduled to meet Jan. 8, which will give them just 10 days to come up with a deal before the current contract expires and a strike vote looms. The union has been holding community meetings this week to explain to parents and community members why a strike is a possibility. The union has three more such meetings scheduled next week.

School Finance

Indiana lawmakers over-promised money for schools to teach students learning English by nearly $50 million

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Amy Peddie, an English as a new language teacher at Southport High School, helps a student on an assignment in her class.

When Indiana’s legislature wrapped up the state budget in 2017, educators celebrated a record $32 million headed to support students learning English as a new language, including considerable bonuses for schools with the highest concentrations of those students.

But what school leaders didn’t immediately realize was that because of a calculation error, state lawmakers had not budgeted enough money to give the schools the extra dollars they were told to expect — it would have cost another $50 million to pay for the promised bonuses.

“It is a pretty significant difference,” said Kathy Friend, chief financial officer for Fort Wayne schools, which serves about 2,600 English-learners. “We didn’t realize it until after the allocation came out.”

The shortfall appears to have been due to a number of factors. First, more schools than expected applied for the funding to support students who need more intensive services. But the amounts the state promised to fund per student to schools with the largest shares of English-learners were also incorrectly calculated, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans told Chalkbeat. If the data error had been caught earlier, the staff member said, the numbers promised in the initial budget would more closely reflect the dollars schools ended up receiving.

“It was definitely not intentional,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican from Indianapolis who chairs the House Education Committee, who said he didn’t realize there was an issue until schools approached him in the fall.

It’s not unusual for the state not to fund all of what they initially promised if, for example, enrollment spikes or revenue dips. When that happens, the law says, each district or charter school’s funding amount should be reduced proportionately. But because they were expecting larger bonuses than other districts, large urban public school districts and charter schools that tend to serve bigger shares of students learning English felt the deepest effects of the miscalculation.

Chalkbeat’s review of the funding data shows the state would have had to set aside about $80 million to meet the per-student expectations it set out in the 2017 budget, $47.5 million more than what lawmakers ended up budgeting. The original plan called for increased funding for students learning English to $250 and $300 per-student, depending on the year in question.

In addition to the base amount, districts and charter schools with higher percentages of students were supposed to get even more on top of that — upwards of $900 per student if they had between 5 percent and 18 percent of their population learning English, and upwards of $1,200 if it was more than 18 percent. In actuality, the schools got between $140 and $177 per-student in 2018 on top of the base, and $22 and $28 per-student extra for 2019.

Behning said lawmakers had an opportunity to backfill the dollars to schools with proportionately more English-learners, but they did not. Last year, a highly publicized shortfall in basic state aid to schools made a splash so big that lawmakers came together in a non-budget year to ensure it was filled, approving another $100 million to go to schools’ general funds.

Lawmakers decided not to bump up the funding for English language-learners because while the specifics of the calculations were based on incorrect data, the Senate spokeswoman said, $32 million was the correct total amount the state wanted to spend.

To be sure, all Indiana schools with English-learners received more money per-student from the state under the 2017 budget than in years prior. Friend said she and her colleagues were happy that lawmakers had upped the funding, recognizing the needs of districts like hers that have many students learning English.

The incorrect budget calculation would have given the district about $2 million more over the two years than the $1.5 million they received. But Friend said the difference in expected versus received dollars doesn’t mean the needs of Fort Wayne’s English-learners aren’t being met.

Rather, school leaders have to use more money from their overall state funding to provide the needed services, so across the board, there’s less to go around. Friend said the district spends $4.5 million on English-learners from its general fund. Some additional money comes from the federal government or local sources. Much of the English-learner-specific money the district gets from the state goes toward paying teachers and teaching assistants, with some also going to pay for instructional materials, interpreters used to communicate with parents, and teacher training.

“We aren’t going to make a choice for what we need to do for these students based on how much money we get,” Friend said. “We have to do what we have to do to serve them. What (the extra funding) does is it relieves the general fund for all the other non-ELL students.”

But, it’s also not a small sum, she said. In 2018, Friend said, the district thought it would receive three-quarters of a million dollars more than it did.

“You can’t sneeze at $756,000,” Friend said. “That’s a lot of money that just plays into the overall program or planning that we have as a district.”

In Marion County, several districts were affected, including Perry Township, which saw the biggest difference in actual vs. expected dollars of any district or charter school in the state. Chalkbeat’s analysis shows the district could have expected about $9 million under the incorrect formula. State data shows it received about $2.6 million. Indianapolis Public Schools, the state’s largest district, received about $2.8 million, more than $6 million less than anticipated.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has called for more funding for English-learners next year, upping the current $300 per-student amount to $450 per-student. But in a year when lawmakers are already saying revenue is exceptionally tight, it’s not clear this funding will be a priority as it competes with teacher pay, preschool, and funding for the Department of Child Services.

Lawmakers have taken major steps to increase ELL funding in years past. After a Chalkbeat project showed how schools were increasingly trying to serve growing numbers of English-learners across the city, the legislature more than doubled funding in 2015 to about $21 million, up from $10 million in 2013. Since 2006, the total number of students learning English in Indiana schools has increased by 77 percent. Today, public schools enroll 47,672 students learning English as a new language.